Sunday, 27 March 2016

More Than a Memory (Luke 24:1-12)

(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Sunday Worship on Mar 27, 2016, Easter)


How Distant That Easter Morning

“Perplexed.” “Terrified.” “In disbelief.” “Amazed.” These are the words that today’s scripture uses to describe how the women and the other disciples react to the empty tomb. The other gospels use similar words: “Alarmed.” “Afraid.”[1] And if the gospels tell us how they felt on the inside, we can imagine how they looked on the outside that morning: their tired footsteps, their unkempt faces, their sunken eyes from the anxious nights.

How distant that Easter morning! Could our experience today be any further from theirs? We are happy, well rested, comfortably and nicely dressed. We arrived this morning at ease, maybe even casually, and why shouldn’t we? We already know how the story ends.

How can we possibly conjure up the sense of surprise that Jesus’ followers felt on that Sunday morning? We may sing “hallelujah,” but how do we feel “hallelujah” the way that they would soon feel it? We can honor that first morning of the week the way we honor an anniversary, but how do experience it firsthand? How can we discover that empty tomb the way that the women did?

A Tomb Is a Memory, a Memory Is a Tomb

The truth is, that empty tomb is not nearly as far from us as we might expect, even though we are separated from it by thousands of years and miles. In the Greek, the word “tomb” is literally something like “memorial”; it’s a close cousin of the word for “memory.” All of which is no coincidence. The two are nearly interchangeable. A tomb is a memory, and a memory is a tomb. Both enshrine what is past.

And so I imagine that, as the women were visiting the tomb in the morning, they were also revisiting a host of memories. “Remember the way he would gently rest his hand on your shoulder? Remember how we felt such peace, how our anxieties and even our illnesses just dissolved? Remember the stories he told? I love that one about the dinner feast where strangers off the street are invited in. Remember the way he would recite scripture and then bring it to life with words of his own? Remember…?”

There they are, stumbling through their memories, stumbling into the tomb. And then suddenly two strange men appear, asking, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” In other words: “You will have about just as much luck finding a living, breathing Jesus in your memories as you will in this tomb. He’s neither among the dead in the ground nor among the dead in the past. He has risen. He’s out there in the world.”

Following the Women into the Tomb

Here, I believe, is where we step into today’s scripture. Here is our bridge into the story, what makes the story real for us too. Because we have all followed the women into the tomb. From time to time, we all stumble back into our memories, which is just to say, we all stumble back into those tombs of ours that mummify the past—and sometimes us too in the process.

Growing up, my family had two cats: Whiskers and Tigger. Whiskers passed away first. And for weeks after that, Tigger would curl up and sleep in Whiskers’ favorite resting place. I won’t pretend to know the psychology of cats, but my best guess is that Tigger was resting in the memory of his deceased brother. He had followed Whiskers into the tomb, and for weeks he could do nothing more than sleep there.

In the last few weeks, a friend of mine who lives in Libya, whom I help to practice English, has been on my mind. A close uncle of hers died recently in an automobile accident. Ever since then, her correspondence has been sparse, sometimes messages of one or two words. I imagine that her grief has led her into a swirling mix of memories. I imagine that right now her life is little different than a tomb.

We have all been there. A dear friend passes away. A close relationship ends. A great dream dies. And early in the morning, when we wake up to this loss, we follow our memories into the grave. We travel to the tomb—carrying spices so that we might dress it up and dwell there, so that we might try to preserve the memory and pretend for just a little bit that the life we knew has not ended.

But upon arriving, if we listen closely, we will hear an otherworldly voice ask: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

Celebrating in a Tomb 
(When Christ Is Outside)

And I think we may hear that same question this morning. It’s tempting to celebrate Easter the way we might celebrate a memory, as we might a birthday or anniversary. It’s tempting to say, “On this day in history, Christ was resurrected. On this day in history, Christ defeated death.” But to treat the resurrection as merely a day in history, merely a memory, and to hold onto it as we would a time-stamped ticket for heaven, is, in a way, to keep the risen Christ entombed, to keep the resurrection buried in memory. And so the question that the women hear, becomes a question that challenges us: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Why do we look for the risen Christ in a memory, among the events of history? That may be for the historians and the philosophers, who occupy their time with the words and deeds of men and women long dead, but it is certainly not for us. Why do we fixate on something that happened in the past, if it’s not something that’s happening right now?

And it is happening right now. At least, that’s what the two strangers say: “He is not here, but has risen.” Try as we might to entomb Christ in a single memory, in history, we find that Christ has risen and gone elsewhere. Christ is outside—God knows where!

And that is the perplexing, terrifying, amazing, alarming, fearful, unbelievable gospel of Easter. Christ is alive in our world—in yours and mine. Let’s not fool ourselves. This is the gospel we need: not the feel-good story that Jesus triumphed over death some two thousand years ago and one day we’ll all be in heaven, but the real and good story that Jesus is alive right now. Because right now is when we need Jesus. Our lives are full of brokenness. Our world is full of death. And if Easter doesn’t feel real, that’s probably because we’re celebrating in a tomb, in a memory thousands of years ago.

“Let Us Not Mock God with Memory”:
Christ Is Alive

Novelist John Updike once wrote about the resurrection, “Let us not mock God with metaphor.”[2] While I appreciate his concern for the ways we overspiritualize and dilute the resurrection, I would suggest a slight revision: “Let us not mock God with memory.” Let us not play at celebrating something that happened only in the past. Because it’s here in the present. Christ is alive. You have felt it, I’m sure of it! Just as Tigger felt it one day, when he got up from Whiskers’ resting spot and discovered new life. I don’t know how the spirit of the risen Christ entered into him—perhaps through a squirrel spotted through the window, perhaps through a shadow playing on the wall. Christ is alive, I’m sure of it! Just as my friend in Libya will feel it one day, when she will step outside the tomb of her uncle’s memory. I don’t know how the spirit of the risen Christ will revive her—perhaps through the inspiration of her uncle’s good gifts to this world, perhaps through the call she feels to practice peace and compassion amid the anger and division of her world in Libya.

Christ is alive, I’m sure of it! Search your own life for the risen Christ, for resurrection, for unaccountable moments of new life. When have you gone to the tomb of your memories, carrying spices to dress them up as a lifeless stand-in for life? When has the risen Christ raised you to new life? Are you living right now in a tomb? Then as farmer and poet Wendell Berry says, “Practice resurrection.” Look for the risen Christ.[3]

Today we stand in exactly the same position as those women at the tomb. Whether we are dwelling in the memories of good things gone by in our own lives, or simply in the memory of what happened nearly two thousand years ago, we hear an otherworldly voice: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”


Risen Christ,
You are the resurrection in all things—
In that tomb thousands of years ago,
In our lives today.
It is a gospel so terrifying, amazing, alarming—
So unbelievable—
That sometimes we prefer
The security of our memories.
Raise us to new life, even in our fear and doubt.
Inspire us to practice your resurrection
In the world around us.
In the name of our life, Jesus Christ. Amen.


[1] Mark 16:5, 8, respectively.

[2] John Updike, “Seven Stanzas at Easter,” in pp. 72-73 of Telephone Poles and Other Poems (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962).

[3] Wendell Berry, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” In Context 30 (1991): 62.

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